The toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood power in Egypt by the army is an event of historic importance. It is important chiefly because it represents an enormous setback in a process which only a few months ago looked inexorable and unstoppable. That process was the replacement of the military-republic regimes in the Arab world by new regimes based on Sunni Islamism, with franchises of the Muslim Brotherhood most prominent among them.
The setback suffered by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was preceded by an earlier rallying of one of their chief enemies. In the course of this year, the Assad regime in Syria succeeded in reversing rebel gains and ending the threat to Damascus.
Since then, Assad’s forces, assisted by Hizballah and advised by Iran, have been turning the Sunni Islamist rebels back in the west of the country. They have consolidated the area of regime control in the west, the capital, and the communication links between them. The regime is now in the process of brutally crushing remaining rebel-held areas in the city of Homs.
The regimes that have fallen as a result of the “Arab Spring” agitation have so far been of a single type: namely, the nationalist-military regime type patented by Colonel Gamal Abd el-Nasir and his friends in Egypt in 1952. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, regimes of this type fell in the course of 2011-12. The Syrian version held on because of its alliance with Iran (in contrast to all others on the list, who were either aligned with the U.S. or isolated and friendless).
Syria’s membership in a regional bloc which understands the importance of standing by friends and clients was the key factor in enabling Assad to escape the fate of his fellow nationalist dictators. Two other superannuated representatives of Arab nationalism also managed to stay in business: Algeria and the West Bank Palestinian Authority. There were clear reasons in each case. Algeria had dealt with an early version of the Arab Spring, when the military intervened to crush the Islamist FIS movement in 1991, after the latter achieved victory in elections.
In the case of the nationalist Fatah-controlled PA, survival was assured because of the presence of a military force capable of crushing any Islamist attempt to seize power. That military force, with the irony that history favors, is the armed force of the state which Fatah came into being to destroy. It is the Israel Defense Forces.
But despite these exceptions, the general direction of events looked clear — namely, the onward march of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Not any more. In Egypt, faced with impending anarchy, the old regime acted. The Muslim Brothers were removed. Notably, among the first to congratulate General Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi were President Bashar Assad of Syria and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Both understood very well the significance of the Brotherhood’s eclipse in Egypt for their own battles with its local representatives.
So is the return of military domination in Egypt a return to “secular” nationalist Arab governance?
Not so fast.
First of all, the latest developments suggest the Muslim Brotherhood has chosen not to accept the verdict of the generals. Instead, the movement now appears to be trying to incite rebellion. Its Freedom and Justice party has called for “an uprising by the great people of Egypt against those trying to steal their revolution with tanks.”
Dozens people have already been killed.
So the stage seems set for an ongoing, bloody showdown between the ancien regime and the Brotherhood — as in Syria, but with the difference that in the Egyptian case, neither of the sides is aligned with Iran. This is an intra-Sunni conflict.
Secondly, the Egyptian resurgent regime side is itself not “secular” in any western sense. General al-Sisi is a devoutly observant Muslim. Among his main supporters is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which regards its own monarchical absolutism as the correct form of Islamic governance, and hates and fears the Muslim Brothers. The Saudis were also among the first to congratulate the putschist Egyptian officers, as was the United Arab Emirates.
The Saudis have emerged as the key opponents of the Brotherhood in the region. In this, their approach is in direct contrast to that adopted by neighboring Qatar, which is the main backer of the MB. The Egyptian generals will be relying on Saudi largesse to stave off economic catastrophe in the months ahead. Qatari generosity will be a casualty of the coup.
So the generals’ coup in Egypt has proven conclusively that the old, nationalist regimes are not finished yet. The Muslim Brotherhood, in Syria and now in Egypt, has been faced down. The fight is not over in either country.
But the fight is over power, not over ideology or methods of governance. The Muslim Brotherhood, General al-Sisi, the Syrian rebels, Bashar Assad, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar may be at loggerheads but they have the following in common: none of them are democrats and none of them are interested in democracy.
The issue for the west, therefore, should be which of these forces are interested in pragmatic alignment with the west, and which wish to oppose it. On this basis, the west should determine its attitude toward the various players in the roiling Middle East.